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An Introduction to Creative Commons

New to Creative Commons? Learn the basics in this guide!

What is Creative Commons?

Have you heard the term Creative Commons and not known exactly what it means? In this guide, Creative Commons is demystified and ways to get involved in the global network are introduced. 

What is Creative Commons?

Creative Commons refers to a number of separate but related concepts. This multi-dimensional term can be used to describe:

  • A set of legal tools
  • A non-profit organization
  • A global network
  • A movement predicated on knowledge sharing, access, and equity


A History of Creative Commons

traditional copyright logo

1. Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA)

Copyright law in the United States governs the rights of creators, assuring ownership of works by their creators for a period of time before entering the public domain.

In 1998, the CTEA was enacted by the United States Congress, extending copyright protections on all works in the US by 20 years, requiring the term of copyright be applied for the life of the creator plus 70 years.  

image: "Copyright Symbols" by MikeBlogs is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Lawrence Lessig founder of Creative Commons

2. Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons

By extending copyright term protections for 20 years, the CTEA functionally prohibited any works in the United States from entering the public domain for 20 years, from 1998 until 2019.

When CTEA was enacted, Stanford Law professor Lawrence Lessig questioned the constitutionality of the act, arguing in favor of a dynamic copyright law that prioritizes both creator rights and the inevitability of works moving to the public domain, incentivizing knowledge sharing. 

image: "Lawrence Lessig" by Joi is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

abstract image with text that reads internet

3. Enter the Internet

At the same time, the Internet was changing the ease by which knowledge could be shared and remixed.

This contention between the restrictions of copyright and the possibilities brought forth by technology opened the door to imagining an alternative.  

image: "internet" by miniyo73 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

US Supreme Court building

4. Eldred v. Ashcroft

Resolute in his conviction the CTEA was unconstitutional, Lawrence Lessig represented Internet publisher Eric Eldred in a case ultimately heard by the United States Supreme Court. Their suit was unsuccessful and CTEA remained in place. 

Despite the loss, the values of openness, creation, sharing, and remixing cultivated by Eldred and Lessig became the inspiration for the founding on Creative Commons.

image: "US Supreme Court" by zacklur is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


creative commons logo

5. The Founding of Creative Commons

In 2002, Lawrence Lessig helped to create Creative Commons as we know it today, making Creative Common licenses available the same year. The creation of Creative Commons allowed creators to retain copyright while exercising more flexibility in sharing their creations, contributing more freely to our ever-growing body of knowledge.

In the United States, all original works are considered under copyright whether registered or not. Using Creative Commons licenses can empower a creator to articulate the extent a creation can be shared and remixed. 


image: "Creative Commons street / room art ;-)" by François @ is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

create in print blocks

6. Creative Commons Today

Creative Commons licenses and the Creative Commons non-profit has grown over the past 20 years into a global network, with the term becoming synonymous with empowerment, equity, access, use, and sustainability in knowledge creation. 

Today, Creative Commons licenses can be found on nearly 2 billion works online spanning 9 million websites.

See the box below to learn how you can get involved in the Creative Commons global network.

image: "yes. create." by Sarah Parrott is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

How you can get involved

Options are plentiful if you are interested in getting involved in the Creative Commons movement. From licensing your own works to joining an advocacy group, you can learn about many opportunities from the links below.


Content created by Colleen Deel, MLIS